Levelling-up Agenda — [Mrs Maria Miller in the Chair]

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 3:44 pm on 15th June 2021.

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Photo of Jesse Norman Jesse Norman The Financial Secretary to the Treasury 3:44 pm, 15th June 2021

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Edward, as it was to serve under your predecessor, Mrs Miller, when she was in the Chair. I thank her very much for stepping into the breach.

I congratulate my hon. Friend Bob Seely on securing this debate. It is testimony to the importance of the issue and the breadth of the debate that he has created that so many colleagues have made interventions and speeches today—and very welcome they were, too. I am replying for the Government on behalf of the Exchequer Secretary.

My hon. Friend is right that this is a very important public issue. It has been the mission of this Government to seek to overcome geographical disparities—disparities of prosperity and of opportunity—and to do so through what we have called levelling up.

By and large, this has been a very good debate and generally good mannered. I think everyone would acknowledge that it has been a bit of a gallop, given the number of speeches, but that is testimony to the huge interest in the topic. I congratulate colleagues who have passed the conversational baton seamlessly from one to another on the vigorous and effective way in which they have put on the public record their own local concerns. I will talk a little about the wider agenda before turning to some of those contributions.

It is plain that the Government believe in the substance and the importance of levelling up. What does that mean? It will mean different things in different places, but the core idea is that everyone should have access to good jobs, good wages and good economic prospects, wherever they live, whether that be in Barnet, Birmingham, Bolton, Bristol or, indeed, Bembridge.

It is built into the energy of our society that at different parts of their lives many people will want to move to different parts of the country to seek work and opportunities, but some may not wish to do so and many will not. We want people to be able to take pride in their local areas and to see them as vibrant, exciting places to live their lives and build their livelihoods. That is at the heart of levelling up and that is why the Government announced a series of significant policy measures designed to begin a longer-term process of redressing geographical imbalances.

Those measures include, as has rightly been touched on, freeports, which are going to be an important catalyst for regional economic growth. We want them to be magnets for innovative businesses, to provide a platform to generate the greater prosperity that will revitalise each area, and to create great jobs and great economic growth.

At the Budget, the Government announced the locations of eight freeports across England, ranging from Teesside in the north-east, to the Solent, close to the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Isle of Wight. That is a potentially very significant intervention, but they are only one part of a wider picture, which is, of course, infrastructure.

Last year we published a national infrastructure strategy that contemplates £600 billion-worth of investment over the next few years—half from the private sector, half from the public sector. Very high levels of capital investment are already being made in many different areas up and down the country, including in roads, through the road investment strategy, in railway, through High Speed 2 and other works, and in many other modes of transport and activities. The transforming cities fund has done a huge amount to support cycling, walking and greener transport across the country.

That investment also includes the towns fund. One or two colleagues have been rather dismissive of the towns fund, and wrongly so. One cannot say that there has been inadequate transparency but then grumble when the details of the fund and the methodology by which the selections were made have been put on the internet for all to review or interrogate. The fund itself is turning out to be a remarkably effective and interesting way to build a holistic local platform for economic growth, because it is not something that can be dominated by local authorities. It requires voluntary and private sector leadership to work with local authorities and, in doing so, bring the best ideas to the table, build long-term pipelines, pump-primed with public money, that will, certainly in many cases, last for years. It is going to prove to have been a very important intervention.

It goes a long way, picking up the point made by Tim Farron on the importance of supporting rural areas. I come from a rural area myself, in Herefordshire, and I am keenly aware of that. He will be aware that although many of the effects of covid will be, in some respects, negative, they will also be positive effects. People will move out of cities, often at earlier points in their lives, to conduct effective and successful careers, no longer fettered by geography as they might have been, adding new energy and vibrancy to areas that are already vibrant. That is another good thing, in many ways.

We are working on the creation of the new UK infrastructure bank, which will be an important intervention. We will announce its launch soon, but many details are already available for colleagues to look at on the internet. It is designed to act as a cornerstone investor for infrastructure projects, to partner with the private sector and local government to develop major infrastructure projects, with the twin goals of green growth and levelling up.

The bank will act across Government as a place to pool expertise, so that people can pick up the phone and get a cross-governmental view about how projects should be financed, which will itself be very important. It will prep and prepare important development work in sectors of green economic growth that we have not yet seen—for example, hydrogen for powering the next generation of transport or potentially for home heating, carbon capture and storage, and the like. About a third of the initial £12 billion in funding for the new UK infrastructure bank will be earmarked for local and mayoral authorities, which will make a huge difference. If we can, as we anticipate, then crowd in private sector investment, that will make a remarkable difference.

It is important not to talk about levelling up without mentioning some of the most important aspects of it, which are to do with skills and training. The Chamber will know about the work we have done on the lifetime skills guarantee, on employer-led skills retraining and on apprenticeships. They all point to a holistic approach, designed to tie skills and infrastructure together, with a local perspective that brings a fuller understanding of local needs to bear.